Friday, September 16, 2011

Richardson aide says Cuba backtracked on American

Posted on Wednesday, 09.14.11

Richardson aide says Cuba backtracked on American
Associated Press

HAVANA -- A top aide to Bill Richardson said Thursday the former New
Mexico governor held a series of meetings with Cuban officials over more
than a year about the fate of a jailed U.S. subcontractor, and was left
with no doubt the Cubans were ready to discuss releasing him.

Gilbert Gallegos, who accompanied Richardson on a failed trip to Havana
to try to win Alan Gross' release, told The Associated Press that the
Cubans suggested they come. And he said they made clear they "were ready
to negotiate."

Gross was arrested in December 2009 after he was caught illegally
bringing communications equipment onto the island while on a
USAID-funded democracy building program. He was sentenced last March to
15 years in jail for crimes against the state, a ruling upheld in August
by Cuba's Supreme Court.

The case has snuffed out any chance for better relations between
Washington and Havana, which had briefly been seen as improving after
U.S. President Barack Obama took office.

Richardson, who has had success winning the release of prisoners in the
past and enjoyed a warm relationship with the Cuban leadership, arrived
Sept. 7. But soaring hopes that he would go home with the American
quickly turned to mutual recriminations when Cuba declined to even let
him see Gross in jail.

Richardson called Gross a "hostage," and ultimately left the island
saying he could never come back as a friend. Cuba on Wednesday accused
him of "blackmail" and slander in his comments to the AP, and said he
was never invited to come or given any indication he would leave with Gross.

Gallegos' comments Thursday made clear the two sides have very different
versions of what went wrong.

While Gross' case was still pending, Cuban officials told their American
counterparts that the legal process had to be respected. After Gross
lost his final appeal Aug. 5, there was increasing hope the 62-year-old
Maryland native might be released on humanitarian grounds. He has lost a
lot of weight in jail, and his mother and daughter are both battling cancer.

Gallegos said Richardson first brought up Gross' plight during an August
2010 visit to Havana in which he met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno
Rodriguez. The two spoke again about Gross the next month in New York on
the sideline of the U.N. General Assembly, Gallegos said, a meeting that
had never been previously disclosed.

Then on June 20 of this year, Richardson got a call from Jorge Bolanos,
Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, who asked him to come over to the
Cuban mission.

There, Bolanos read Richardson a diplomatic note that "basically said
that after the judicial process ended the Cubans were ready to talk to
him about Gross," Gallegos said.

On July 22, Richardson had a phone conversation with the Cuban diplomat.
Bolanos, who was in Cuba at the time, said that the judicial process
against Gross would soon be over and that they could then proceed with
the talks. They spoke on the same day that Gross made his final appeal
to the Supreme Court.

Richardson suggested he come in August, but Bolanos told him to hold off
until Sept. 1. The Supreme Court made its final ruling Aug. 5.

Gallegos said the two men spoke again July 26, at which point Richardson
proposed a Sept. 7 trip, which is when he came. On Aug. 10, Richardson
had lunch with Bolanos at the Cuban diplomat's residence in Washington.
Bolanos told Richardson he would meet Bruno Rodriguez in Havana, and
implied that negotiations would ensue.

"It was incredibly clear to Gov. Richardson that the Cubans this time
were at the point where they were ready to negotiate," said Gallegos.
"They were ready to seriously discuss the possibility of releasing Mr.

That is the opposite of what Josefina Vidal, head of the Cuban Foreign
Ministry's North American affairs division, told the AP on Wednesday.

She insisted that releasing Gross was "never on the table," and
chastised Richardson for the fact that news of his trip leaked just as
he was arriving, indicating Havana considered it an attempt at pressure

Gallegos acknowledged the Cubans may have been upset with the media
attention, but said Richardson's team got the impression that was not
what scuttled the visit.

"The sense we got is that their decision was made before we got there,"
he said.

Gallegos said Richardson met multiple times with State Department
officials before his visit. He said Richardson did not bring with him a
specific offer from the U.S. government of a quid pro quo, but did
discuss areas where he felt progress could be made.

"He offered them eight to 10 areas where he, where Gov. Richardson, felt
the relationship could be improved going forward," said Gallegos, adding
that Richardson mentioned opening bilateral talks on counternarcotics,
environmental issues and cooperation on natural disasters - all things
Cuba has long requested from Washington.

Richardson had a three-hour lunch in Havana with Rodriguez, the Cuban
foreign minister, which he described as extremely pleasant and
productive. At the end, however, Rodriguez was noncommittal on
Richardson's requests for a sit down with President Raul Castro, a
chance to see Gross and an opportunity to discuss his release. The top
Cuban diplomat said he would ask Castro and get back to Richardson.

That evening, Rodriguez called Richardson at Havana's Hotel Nacional to
deliver the news.

"He basically gave him three no's," Gallegos said. "It really surprised
the governor he would not even be allowed to see Gross."

Gallegos said it was not clear why the Cubans changed their mind.
Richardson told CNN on Wednesday that he thought hard-liners within the
Cuban government had won an internal argument about Gross's fate,
dooming the visit.

Gallegos said Richardson briefed the U.S. State Department on the trip
on Thursday. He recommended no improvements in bilateral ties until
Gross is release.

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